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ClassPass founder on the future of fitness — and what it takes to start a business

Payal Kadakia talks to TMRW about creating her billion-dollar company and what she expects the future of fitness to look like after COVID-19.
"If you have that (great) idea, the most important thing is to get something out there. Get started. Sometimes we feel like we need everything to be perfect," said Payal Kadakia, who founded ClassPass in 2013.
"If you have that (great) idea, the most important thing is to get something out there. Get started. Sometimes we feel like we need everything to be perfect," said Payal Kadakia, who founded ClassPass in 2013.Susmita Patel
/ Source: TMRW

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

Payal Kadakia is the founder and executive chairman of ClassPass, an online booking platform for fitness classes, that she started in 2013 after struggling to find a group dance class in New York City. Eight years later, ClassPass works with gyms and fitness studios in 2,500 cities worldwide and has been become a rare startup valued at more than $1 billion — one that's rapidly evolving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here, Kadakia tells us what she learned launching her own business, her advice for budding entrepreneurs and what she thinks the future of fitness will look like.

TMRW: Where did the idea for ClassPass come from?

Payal Kadakia: I started looking for a ballet class to take after work one day and I realized that there was so much information all over and nothing was concise. For anyone out there who ever wanted to find a class, they were never going to get to it — and I certainly didn't that day. I realized that technology could help.

What do you remember about the early days of ClassPass?

I remember how hard it was to get anyone to go to class for the first three years. And I then I remember the first time someone went to class. And then the second class that was booked, and how inspiring and encouraging that was. What I really wanted to do was change human behavior and make people passionate about staying connected to activities they love. For the studios, it brought in new customers who let go of their fear of trying new things — going to a dance cardio class you've never done before, for example.

Kadakia has been dancing since she was 3 years old. One of her professional goals has always been to find a way to bring her passion into her work. Courtesy of SA Dance Company

How did COVID-19 affect your company, and how did you adapt?

So much of our revenue just came to a halt. About 90% of our studios shut down within two weeks. For us, the number one thing was, how do we keep people moving and working out during this time? Within a few weeks, we were able to flip our entire app into offering digital classes.

We also recently launched a vaccine-center finder. You can't book appointments, but you can get all the information you need — the closest center to you, what vaccines they have, the hours, how to book. My team has done an awesome job. I want to make sure they get the credit they deserve. They're the ones executing on all of this and that's the most important thing right now.

It seems like everyone these days has a Mirror or a Peloton bike or is doing yoga on Zoom. What do you think the future of fitness looks like?

It's hard to predict what's going to happen after this. People have developed a routine at home, but I also think people are going to want to have class experiences. We think of working out as fun and part of that comes from the social camaraderie you get from being with a group in person. So I think there's going to be a hybrid model.

Kadakia hopes to expand ClassPass into other lifestyle areas in the future. Andrew Casey

What can we expect from ClassPass in the future?

We know this idea of booking something and of discovery is really the magic of ClassPass. We're excited about moving into non-fitness categories. I can't speak to what exactly just yet, but we want to be a destination for experiences.

What's your best piece of advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

An idea is important, but the problem you are trying to solve in the world is the most important thing. What it really comes down to is knowing what the problem is. And your idea is the solution. I say that because if the idea doesn't work, you're going to go back to the problem and reassess, over and over. So is it a problem you really care about? In the moment of challenge, it's this sense of, I've got to solve this problem, that's going to get you out of bed and say, I'm going to keep fighting. It's a lot of work. You have to be invested.

On a more tactical level, if you have that idea, the most important thing is to get something out there. Get started. Sometimes we feel like we need everything to be perfect. I did that for the first product we launched and learned my lesson. For the next one, it was like, let's make it scrappy, let's just get it out there and see if people use it.